Tagged: Authoritarian reversal Maldives

Keeping up with the authoritarians


by Azra Naseem

The Maldives is no longer a democracy. For some reason, this is a fact which most observers, especially from the outside, are unwilling to accept. All statements and reports from the international community note ‘with concern’ the many actions of Yameen’s regime that fall well within the boundaries of authoritarianism, yet continue to insist the Maldivian democracy still exists – it’s just ‘at risk’.

According to experts, modern democratic regimes meet four minimum criteria: 1) the executive and Majlis are chosen through elections that are open, free, and fair; 2) virtually all adults possess the right to vote; 3) political rights and civil liberties, including freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom to criticise the government without reprisal, are broadly protected; and 4) elected authorities possess real authority to govern, in that they are not subject to tutelary control of military or clerical leaders.⁠1

Which of these criteria are met by the current Maldivian regime?

In terms of No.1, the electoral process, the Supreme Court’s interventions in the presidential election of 2013 made a mockery of the electoral process. The many tricks and tactics used to draw out the election until it eventually ended in a win for Yameen are by now well documented⁠2 and cannot be described by anyone who understands the principles and norms of democracy as ‘democratic.’

The Majlis elections in 2014, which was preceded by Supreme Court-engineered firing of President of the Elections Commission Fuwad Thowfeek—noted for his integrity—was characterised by vote buying and selling. As the EU Observers noted, while⁠3 the election was ‘calm and orderly’, it was marred by ‘allegations of prevalent vote-buying, excessive campaign expenditure and abuse of state resources’⁠4.

Another death blow to the electoral process has been the systematic imprisonment of all opposition leaders. Almost all opposition leaders are in jail: former president Mohamed Nasheed for 13 years, charged and convicted of terrorism; leader of Adhaalath Party Sheikh Imran Abdullah, charged with terrorism and in detention without trial now for over a 100 days; former Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim, convicted of weapons smuggling and jailed for 11 years. Those who haven’t been put behind bars, like 2013 presidential candidate Qasim Ibrahim, have either been coerced out of the political arena through threats to personal freedom and business interests while others—like the Chairman of MDP Ali Waheed, Deputy Leader of Jumhooree Party (JP) Ameen Ibrahim and impeached Vice President Mohamed Jameel Ahmed—have chosen to live in exile rather than spend what could be decades in prison. This state of affairs ensures that, when (or if) the next election comes around it would be, for all intents and purposes, non-competitive.

Number 2 on the list, the right for virtually all adults to vote still exists. But based on the experiences discussed above—judicial interventions, the now deeply embedded custom of vote buying and selling, patronage, blackmail and corruption—it is clear to see that the mere existence of that right does not ensure its contribution to the strengthening of democracy.

No. 3—the protection of civil and political rights—has suffered equally greatly. It is not simply leaders of the opposition the regime has clamped down on. From 8 February 2012 onwards, it became the norm to quell opposition protests with brutal violence. Pepper spray, violent beatings, and imprisonment were prevalent throughout the regime of caretaker president Waheed and during the protests in the lead-up to and during the 2013 presidential elections; and it has been standard practise after Yameen’s election. The arrest of over 200 protesters on 1 May 2015 and their subsequent unlawful detentions, mistreatment and intimidation—combined with the continued imprisonment of Nasheed and coercion of MDP—have effectively put a stop to all opposition rallies.


It is not just activists and mass protesters who have been silenced. There are virtually no independent institutions or civil society organisations left with the capacity or courage to criticise the government. The independence of the Elections Commission and the Human Rights Commission was taken away through Supreme Court instigated suo motu cases, while all other institutions, such as the Police Integrity Commission (PIC) as just one example, have been rendered toothless by appointing regime loyalists as members. The recently published report by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) chronicles the many steps taken against cvil society organisations since 2013, which all contribute towards elimination of civil and political rights.

And, when it comes to No.4, the possession of ‘real authority’ by elected officials to govern—this now applies only to Yameen and members of his Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). The entire local governance system has been dismantled, and elected council members rendered powerless. In the Majlis, PPM and its allies enjoy the majority power needed to pass whatever Bills they propose, and where an absolute majority is needed—as seen in the machinations that saw MDP voting with PPM for two controversial constitutional amendments—it resorts to blackmail, coercion, patronage and the usual web of corruption and deceit to engineer the result it desires. Elected MPs have also lost their power through amendments made to Majlis rules such as the recent abolishing of the requirement for debate and discussion before passing bills, and the new regulation which says only PPM members can propose any legislation or amendments related to state finances.

Clearly, the Maldives is failing to meet the minimum criteria required of a modern democracy in all sectors. Experts admit that violations of these criteria occur in even the most established democracies. However, in such cases, the violations are not systematic enough to ‘fundamentally alter the playing field between government and opposition.’ In the Maldives, the playing field is not just failing to be level, it has been almost totally annihilated. The Maldivian Democratic Party is at its weakest since inception, its power to mobilise supporters and lead opposition activities held hostage to a) government’s unlawful detention and mistreatment of its charismatic leader, Nasheed, and b) to the threat to freedom and security of all its supporters.

So what kind of a regime is it that currently exists in the Maldives?

As the ICJ report noted, the Maldives’ transition to democracy was flawed. While Nasheed managed to instigate several democratic reforms, many key elements of the state apparatus remained within the control of the former Gayoom regime. For most of the transition period under Nasheed, the Majlis remained under opposition control, not acting as a responsible branch of the opposition but existing as a bulwark against much needed democratic reforms. The judiciary, too, remained in the grips of the same forces, its key members acting against the new democratic constitution rather than with it. As diligently chronicled by former member of the Judicial Services Commission, Aishath Velezinee, MDP was at times unable—and at other times unwilling—to instigate the actions necessary for change in the right direction.

The Maldivian democracy in transition under Nasheed can therefore be described as being, a ‘weak’ or ‘flawed’ or even a ‘diminished’ democracy; nevertheless it was one that met the minimum requirements of one. A difficult transition experience is neither unexpected nor unusual, as seen by the many African and Eastern European countries that adopted democracy in the post-Cold War era. And, as was seen from these countries, authoritarian reversal is not an unusual ending to such a transition.

waheed-maldivesOnce the controversial end to Nasheed’s government was accepted by CONI as ‘legal and constitutional’ with ‘no coup, no duress, no mutiny’, possibilities opened up for the ‘flawed democracy’ to change into a hybrid regime veering away from democracy towards competitive authoritarianism. When caretaker president Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik took the reigns of the country, this is the direction in which he—with the Gayoom loyalists he signed with—firmly steered the country.

In a competitive authoritarian regime, violations of the four criteria discussed above are frequent:

Although elections are regularly held and generally free of massive fraud, incumbents routinely abuse state resources, deny the opposition adequate media coverage, harass opposition candidates and their supporters, and in some cases manipulate electoral results. Journalists, opposition politicians, and other government critics maybe spied on, threatened, harassed, or arrested. Members of the opposition may be jailed, exiled, or—less frequently—even assaulted or murdered. Regimes characterised by such abuses cannot be called democratic. (Levitsky and Way 2002)

As discussed previously, the presidential election of 2013, was less than democratic. Waheed’s rule was marked by major clamp downs on opposition, the brutal murder of MP Afrasheem Ali, and several attacks on journalists and media organisations. All such activities multiplied after Yameen’s election. Three young men, including a journalist, have been missing for over a year. The government has failed to investigate and, in the case of the disappeared journalist, has actively obstructed efforts to find him. While media freedom remains, Maldives has slipped from 51st place in the World Press Freedom Index in 2012 to 112th place in 2015. Added to this are the threats and actions against the opposition previously discussed, and the government’s control of the judiciary and the legislature — all hallmarks of competitive authoritarianism.

Clearly, the Maldivian democracy has long since passed the ‘at risk’ stage. It no longer exists. The question that should be asked is, under what sort of authoritarianism is the country in? Is it competitive, or full-scale authoritarianism?


In a competitive authoritarian regime, although not a democracy, there are still arenas of contestation through which opposition forces ‘may periodically challenge, weaken, and occasionally even defeat autocratic rulers’. These are: a) the electoral arena; b) the legislature; c) the judiciary; and c) the media.

In competitive authoritarian regimes the electoral process can be marked by large-scale abuses of state power. The media is often biased, and there is widespread abuse and harassment of opposition activists and candidates. But, major opposition parties and candidates still compete, the elections are generally free of massive fraud, and international observers are allowed to monitor the process. This (apart from the extra-legal interventions of the Supreme Court) largely applies to what happened in the 2013 presidential election in the Maldives.

Things have, however, progressed far beyond that stage now. What is seen happening in the electoral process at present—such as the routine imprisonment of opposition figures—are hallmarks of full-scale authoritarianism where elections are either devoid of any serious competition, or are not held at all. At the level of local government, the electoral process has all but disappeared. When it came to the latest round of local council elections, the newly elected Elections Commission—populated by regime loyalists—decided the process wasn’t worth the required MVR100,000 or so. Furthermore, if an increasingly loud media murmur is to be believed, plans are now in the offing to extend the presidential term limits from five years to eight years through yet another constitutional amendment through the Majlis.

Looking at the legislative arena, things are not any rosier. In a competitive authoritarian regime, the legislature—although controlled by a ruling party majority—remains a place where the opposition can, even if occasionally, put up a good fight; and can still be a public platform from which to criticise the regime. This was largely the case with the Maldivian Majlis during caretaker Waheed’s regime. Recent developments in the Majlis in relation to the constitutional amendments, however, proved that it no longer serves as a people’s parliament, representing differing opinions and voices. It, too, has become a hallmark of full-scale authoritarianism where ‘conflict between the legislature and the executive branch is virtually unthinkable.’

ConstitutionThat the third arena—the judiciary—is under the complete control of the government is not an argument that anyone seriously contests, except the executive itself. Dozens of reports have been published by a whole range of international organisations from the UN to the ICJ censuring its lack of independence and corruption, and criticism has flowed from individual states, regional bodies and supranational entities. During Waheed’s competitive authoritarian regime, the widespread corruption, patronage and blackmail inherited from the Gayoom era remained in the judiciary. But there was room—although very little—for individual judges to express dissenting opinions. Several decisions by the executive since Yameen’s assumption of office, brought into effect via the compliant Majlis—such as the restructuring of the Supreme Court bench—have, however, destroyed any wriggle room for independent thought or action in the judiciary.

The media, is perhaps the only one of the four arenas which full-scale authoritarian regimes usually control that is not yet fully within the grasp of the Yameen regime. This is due not for the lack of trying, but to the impossibility of imposing such control over the kind of globally inter-connected media that exists today. Spying—both traditional and cyber—on dissenting voices by the police is common place, as is harassment and intimidation. And, as discussed before, the working environment for many journalists is far from safe. On top of this, the regime is now set to pass two new Bills—one on Freedom of Expression and one on Counterterrorism—which are set to curtail dissent and opposition to degrees not seen since the transition to democracy in 2008.

In addition to all this is the Yameen regime’s total dismissal of international democratic opinion, treaties and laws, and a deliberate foreign policy shift away from the democratic international community in favour of China, and authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Except for the fact that the Maldives is not (yet) a threat to international security, the regime could easily be described as a ‘rogue state’.

And yet—despite all the evidence which shows the Maldives fitting neatly into the existing frameworks of what defines at best a competitive authoritarian regime and at worst a full-scale authoritarian regime—leaders of established democracies, and international stakeholders in the global democratisation efforts, continue describing the Maldives as ‘a democracy at risk’. This is clearly no longer the case.

Why the reluctance to let go of the ‘democracy’ label? Does it arise from a fear of acknowledging defeat and admitting that despite the international community’s interest and (sometimes admirable) efforts to help democratise the Maldives, it has failed to take root and succeed? Or is it simply because international actors are not keeping up with the authoritarians in the Maldives?

This must change. Any efforts to restore democracy to Maldives must start with the acknowledgement that however successful the transition appeared in the beginning, it has been deliberately failed. A fresh start that learns from the past, and knows what we are dealing with at present, is necessary.

1 Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, ‘The rise of competitive authoritarianism’, Journal of Democracy 13 (2) (2002), 51-65:53

2 EU Election Observation Mission, ‘Republic of Maldives parliamentary elections 22 March 2014: final report’, available at http://www.eueom.eu/files/pressreleases/english/eu-eom-maldives2014-final-report_en.pdf (27 August 2015).

See also: International Commission of Jurists and South Asians for Human Rights, ‘Justice adrift: rule of law and political crisis in the Maldives’, August 2015, available at http://icj.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Maldives-Justice-Adrift-Rule-of-Law-Publications-fact-finding-report-2015-ENG.pdf (28 August 2015).

3 Commission of National Inquiry (CONI), August 2012

4 . EU Election Observation Mission, ‘Republic of Maldives parliamentary elections 22 March 2014: final report’, available at http://www.eueom.eu/files/pressreleases/english/eu-eom-maldives2014-final-report_en.pdf (27 August 2015).

Like Water for Politics: Lessons from Male’ Water Crisis


by Azra Naseem

On 4 December, a fire at the Male’ Water and Sewerage Company (MWSC) damaged the desalination plants supplying water to the congested capital’s 150,000 residents. Since then the two square kilometre island has been without running water. Drinking water has never really been free in the Maldives. A majority choose to buy bottled water rather than drink desalinated tap water. Soon after the fire at the MWSC, the island was on the verge of running out of bottled water, too, as people started panic buying in bulk.

Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon asked for foreign assistance later the same evening. India was the first to respond. The first Indian aircraft carrying emergency water assistance for residents of Male’ arrived on the morning of 5 December. On Sunday, INS Deepak docked in Male’. She was carrying 900 tonnes of water, and has the capacity to produce 200 tonnes a day. Sri Lanka also sent water, and US agreed to help. 20 tonnes of water from China arrived Sunday night by air, and another 600 tonnes arrived this morning with the Chinese navy. As the newly set up [second] official Twitter account of the Maldives Ministry of Foreign Affairs shows, plenty more water has been shipped to Male’ in-between. Police and army are distributing the water from designated points, and people are queuing up in tens of thousands to collect it during specified times—it is all they have for drinking, cooking and all sanitary purposes.

The crisis has revealed the MWSC—co-owned by the Maldives government (80%) and Japan’s Hitachi company (20%)—does not have a back-up plan for supplying water to Male’s residents. As any major crisis in a country tends to do, Male’s water crisis has also revealed interesting facts about its socio-economic and political life.

Socially, the first day of free water distribution was marred by racism as some residents of Male’ tried to stop expatriate labourers from getting to the rationed water. The shameful behaviour even made it on to Al Jazeera. Sadly, it’s not a once-off. Discrimination against (non-white) immigrants is one of the defining characteristics of Male’ today. Often, Bangladeshis are at the receiving end of this racism. On Monday a naval vessel, BNS Samudra Joy, carrying 100,000 tonnes of drinking water and five mobile water treatment plants docked in Male. In addition to appreciating the water, many also admired the Bangladeshi gesture as a great way of raising the middle finger to Maldivian discrimination against their workers in Male’.

There have also been many reports the foreign donated water is not being distributed equally.

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One hundred days of sorrow: missing moyameehaa

“You run back and forth listening for unusual events,
peering into the faces of travelers.
“Why are you looking at me like a madman?”
I have lost a friend. Please forgive me.” – Rumi


by Azra Naseem

Sunday will be the 100th day since Ahmed Rizwan (Rilwan) Abdulla, @moyameehaa, was abducted. Time has dragged, weighted down by the burden of not knowing. Between then and now much, yet nothing, has happened. The posters brightening a thousand walls with Rilwan’s smile have faded with the sun and dissolved with the rain. Five thousand men and women put pen to paper, ‘Good Sir, kind Madam, please find Rilwan,’ they begged. At least as many thousand Tweets have echoed round the world: ‘#Findmoyameehaa, #Findoyameehaa.’ Hundreds of friends and supporters have marched on Male’s streets with the question: ‘Where is Rilwan?’ Scores have met many miles away in Melbourne and in New York, asking the same question.

Rilwan’s mother has said, to any ears that would listen, ‘I am poor, but my love makes Rilwan a priceless treasure. Please find him for me.’ Hundreds have felt her tears roll down their faces. ‘He is alive,’ Rilwan’s father has insisted. His mind has been far from the assorted fruits and vegetables he sells at the local market. ‘How do you know?’ ask customers who have stopped to listen. Without batting an eyelid he has said, ‘I asked a clairvoyant.’

It may seem odd, approaching a clairvoyant to look for a son abducted in this technologically advanced twenty first century. But when the natural world makes no sense, the supernatural often appears the only consolation. In its investigation into Rilwan’s disappearance, Maldives Police Service (MPS) has been more than negligent; it has been willfully perverse. In hundred days the MPS has given almost as many excuses for making zero progress in the search for Rilwan: nobody was abducted; it was a woman who was abducted; it was not an abduction, it was a rape; Rilwan ‘disappeared himself’; Rilwan is an apostate, not worth looking for; Rilwan is playing an elaborate joke; Rilwan is writing his own missing persons reports; Rilwan was abducted by gangs, there are no gangs in the Maldives; we have arrested someone, we have let him go; Rilwan was abducted by violent extremists, there are no violent extremists in the Maldives; Rilwan is not missing, it is all a political drama; no comment; Rilwan who?

Rilwan the journalist who examined the many maladies of Maldives. Rilwan the teenage blogger who gave a damn about the poor and the wronged. Rilwan the ex-radical who understood the extremist mindset better than all official strategists. Rilwan the story-teller whose #FerryTales shortened the distance between Male’ and Hulhumale’ more than any bridge can. Rilwan the well-mannered young man who respected the elderly. Rilwan the friend who listened. Rilwan the writer who inspired. Rilwan the aspiring poet who read Rumi and Neruda. Rilwan the thinker who sought spiritual succor in meditation, Nusrat Fatah Khan and the Quran. Rilwan the friend who laughed; the brother who baked; the uncle who played; the son who loved. Rilwan the Maldivian who cared.

The reasons why Rilwan’s friends, family and supporters want him found are the very reason the authorities want him to remain missing. What Rilwan abhorred in our society, our rulers cheer loudly.

Rilwan wanted a society free of corruption; our leaders revel in it. He wanted to see Jihadist ideologies become less attractive to young Maldivians; our religious clerics encourage it while the government turns a blind eye. He wanted gang violence to have less power over society; senior government officials outsource authority to favoured gang members. Rilwan wanted equal justice for all; our rulers want judgement and punishment to be arbitrary, wielded by them how and when they please. He wanted a society where citizens shared its wealth more equally; our rulers want all wealth to be their own.

Rilwan wanted us all to think more deeply about how to live a more meaningful, spiritual and equal existence; it is the antithesis of all that our rulers desire. For the moment we begin to think more deeply is the moment we begin to regret voting them in. It would be the beginning of our demand for change, the precursor to saying: ‘Enough. I will not let you rule me anymore.’

If the past 100 days has made anything clear, it is that this government will do all it can to stop Rilwan from being found. It is in its interests to do so. The past 100 days has also made something else very clear: we must do all we can to find out what happened to Rilwan. It is in our interests to do so. Our pursuit of a more just, equal and democratic society, as dreamed of by Rilwan, cannot begin if we forget Rilwan’s abduction and the government’s role in it, either by taking him or covering it up.

Let’s not stop our pressure on the authorities to #FindMoyameehaa. We owe it to Rilwan, and to our future.